She infiltrated the world of pick-up artists, and this art show is the result

In real life, "Jay Lay" is an artist — and not one of the pick-up variety. Jennifer Laiwint has turned an online social experiment into her latest exhibition.

Jay Lay was a lie, but his advice was for real. Disrespecting women? Shut it down, bro

Jennifer Laiwint. Detail of "The Being," 2017. (Courtesy of AGM)

Jay Lay is a master of seduction.

Jay Lay plays by his own rules.

Jay Lay wants to help you do the same.

But Jay Lay only exists online.

In real life, Jay is an artist — and not one of the pick-up variety.

His real identity is Jennifer Laiwint, and Laiwint, unlike just about everyone you'll find in the PUA community, is a she.

Laiwint is a 33-year-old visual artist, one who typically works in photography and video, but last spring she found herself in the middle of something much closer to a social experiment — an experience that would become The Pick Up Artist, her current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

'The Pick Up Artist'

The focus of The Pick Up Artist is Laiwint's diary from when Jay was an active member of a PUA forum. She uses some of his conversations in a large collage that appears in the space, as well. And accompanying those written excerpts are a few audio and video pieces — commentary that provides some context on how the actions and attitudes of these online communities spill over into real life.

It's not just about the guy at the bar practicing cheesy lines. One video, Vanessa, is an interview with a Toronto woman was targeted and harassed because she shared a news article about "legal rape" advocate and so-called PUA Roosh V on Facebook. She went to the police and the media with her story. "I wanted to hear from a person who didn't need to create a character — or act as another person, act as a guy — in order to confront or address problems and misogyny and manipulation," Laiwint says. All in all, the show is a bit like a deconstructed documentary on what Laiwint calls the "so-called seduction community."

Jennifer Laiwint. Is This Kind of Douchey? 2017. (Courtesy of AGM)

But back to Jay Lay for a bit.

It was March 2016 when Jay Lay, life coach, made his debut on the PUA message boards.

Laiwint had been lurking for a while, seeing what the forum's 175,000+ members were chatting about. Thread topics range from "overcoming social shyness" to "lay reports." She'd fallen down a rabbit hole researching the PUA community, and it wasn't the first time.

"It really just came out of a place of curiosity. It didn't start with the intention of it becoming a project," Laiwint tells CBC Arts. "I wanted some sense — some kind of access. I really thought that what I was going to encounter was just guys trading tips and strategies. I think I was coming from a place of wanting to understand what had happened to me in a relationship."

Before there was Jay...

When Laiwint was 25, she dated a self-proclaimed PUA. "He was pretty open about it," she says. "But I didn't really understand that this was a formalized community."

So she Googled. The PUA community has its own language. You've probably encountered this glossary term: "Negging is a big one — that's like a compliment and an insult wrapped into one," she says. "Like, 'Oh, I like your nails. Are they real?' Things like that."

There are textbook techniques for manipulating the power dynamics in a relationship. Take this one: "Being kind of an alpha male is a big thing — so greeting somebody and being kind of aggressive, or giving a kiss right off the bat," she says. "That's what he did on our first date."

I felt exploited or violated. This thing that I believed to be real and true was actually the result of a set of manipulations.- Jennifer Laiwint, artist

Back when that romance ended, Laiwint first started researching PUAs. She'd watch a YouTube tutorial about seduction techniques and see a play-by-play from some moment in the relationship. Those discoveries, she says, were "horrifying."

"It was this moment of realization, she says. "I felt exploited or violated. This thing that I believed to be real and true was actually the result of a set of manipulations."

Be your best self

By the time she was registering a profile on a PUA message board, her perspective was different. She had some personal distance from the subject. "I wasn't so emotionally entangled," she says. And that grey area she'd experienced — the shaky uncertainty of what's true and what's false in a relationship — became a source of creative fascination.

In her past work, Laiwint's looked at self-help and self-improvement culture. When she spent time on the PUA forums, she kept seeing a lot of similar advice.

"It's very generic self-improvement stuff about harnessing your being and becoming the empowered self," she says, thinking about their rhetoric.

Be yourself! It's something that you read a lot on the forums, she says. "There's this emphasis on becoming a genuine, sincere self. And yet, there's still a dependency on strategies and tactics and tools for manipulation. And that grey area is what really sparked an interest."

So she played right into the ambiguity. Jay was a lie, but he was going to offer real advice.

Jennifer Laiwint. The Being, 2017. (Courtesy of AGM)

A gentleman troll among the trolls

"It wasn't an intention," she says. "It just kind of happened."

In her first posts, Laiwint says she wasn't even pretending to play a character. "It was really just me giving advice to these guys." Jay Lay is a short form of her name — though she laughs whenever she has to say it out loud.

Over time, she dropped a few extra details, gradually building Jay's mysterious, every-dude backstory.

He's a reformed "jerk," to use his words — a guy who "worshipped The Game" until he found a pick-up method that works even better.

He loves his family; he's passionate about music. Personality-wise, language is the only thing that strongly separates Jay and Jennifer. His favourite word is "bro," second only to "dude," and he's more direct. "A little bit bullying maybe," she says. "There's a kind of aggressivity to the way [people on the forum] give advice. Kind of like tough love, as they often refer to it."

And boiled down, Jay's wisdom is basic, golden rule stuff. Treat women as you'd like to be treated. Be respectful in your words and actions.

He posts lines like this:

"If you keep thinking about women as bitches or numbers, I'm telling you, you're not gonna get anywhere with them."

"Would you want someone rating you?"

"I can guarantee that once you start respecting them more, they will be more interested."

He is a gentleman troll among the trolls, and as Laiwint discovered, his point of view was welcomed. "Most of the time, they [other users] were pretty receptive."

If you keep thinking about women as bitches or numbers, I'm telling you, you're not gonna get anywhere with them.- Jay Lay

There's one conversation that pulls focus in the exhibition. Over two months, Jay made one user his pet project. Think Clueless — but in this 2017 version, Cher is out to rescue Tai from toxic masculinity.

The guy had just received some Tinder advice from another PUA: If he wrote that he loved travel, all the girls would be swiping right. On the forum, he called bullshit, and not because that line's the No. 1 online dating cliché.

"The ultimate question he asked was, 'Where do you draw the line between being yourself and lying?'" says Laiwint. He was asking the same question she was, and she had to respond.

"As Jay, I really encouraged him to be honest — which I know is a little bit hypocritical." Over two months, their correspondence reveals a great deal of emotion and vulnerability — as Jay's charge writes openly about his loneliness, and his lack of motivation to change his life. But at the same time, Jay is also repeatedly flagging ignorant, misogynistic statements. They have their final conversation when the guy asks for advice on practicing his pick-up game at a coffee shop. "I try to never talk to lesbian-looking women," he writes, "but some good looking women are also feminists."

'I had a lot of internal conflicts about this show'

Laiwint never revealed Jay's true identity to users on the forum, and the people quoted in the show were not informed. She says she often worried about how she could ever take this project and bring it into a gallery.

"I had a lot of internal conflicts about this show — and exhibiting any of this material, actually — because of the deceptive elements involved," she tells CBC Arts.

The advice I was giving was coming from a real place, and a real, genuine place. The deception was that my name was Jay and not Jenny.- Jennifer Laiwint, artist

But every message that's included in the show, she notes, was shared publicly. The posts, Jay's included, are a Google search away, and everyone on the board hides their identity with a pseudonym.

Ultimately, she has no qualms about what she wrote as Jay. "The advice I was giving was coming from a real place, and a real, genuine place. The deception was that my name was Jay and not Jenny," she says.

'My goal was to make something that was subversive but also sensitive'

The question of why Jay was posting in the first place, however, is complicated — far more complicated than any of his relationship advice.

"I think for a long time I was maybe deceiving myself into thinking I was working for a movement — that I was trying to make a kind of feminist work, or trying to advocate for a cause," says Laiwint.

Sure, Jay was stealth-bombing the message boards with a feminist point of view — and the occasional link to feminist websites. But Laiwint says the project's focus isn't politics.

"In doing this, I realized I was actually trying to heal my own wounds. It was coming from a really personal place," she says. Giving advice, she says, is one of her coping strategies. Initially, Jay gave her an outlet.

Says Laiwint: "My goal was to make something that was subversive but also sensitive and that accounted for the nuances in what it means to be a human who is in relationships — and how difficult it can be and the power dynamics involved."

The project isn't over, Laiwint says, and she's currently exploring new directions.

As for Jay, it's been a few months since his last post, but he's still registered — and he still wants to help.

Jennifer Laiwint. The Pick Up Artist. To Jan. 1, 2018 at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. www.artgalleryofmississauga.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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